Federal judges weighing the constitutionality of maps adopted by lawmakers in August as proposed fixes to racial gerrymanders closed a hearing on Friday with a question easily answered.
“When is the filing period?” U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles asked.
Candidates interested in running for state Senate and House seats must file with state or county election boards between Feb. 12 and 28, attorneys responded.
A question that remains unanswered as potential candidates make their decisions is what district lines will look like in Wake, Guilford, Cumberland, Hoke, Mecklenburg, Bladen, Sampson and Wayne counties.
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At a four-hour hearing on Friday in a full courtroom, Eagles and the other two federal judges presiding over one of North Carolina’s long-running redistricting cases – James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder – heard from a Stanford University law professor they asked to help them with the case.
Nathaniel Persily, the special master hired by the court, presented maps and a report in December offering proposals for how district lines could be tweaked in eight counties where the judges had concerns about possible racial gerrymanders and state constitutional violations in the lawmakers’ 2017 maps.
No racial targets
Persily told the judges, in response to criticism from Republican lawmakers, that he had not drawn the maps with any intended racial quotas.
“Achieving these racial targets was not a goal of the special master’s plan,” Persily said. “What it does is it remedies the identified violations of the North Carolina and U.S. constitutions.”
Throughout the hearing Wynn worked to keep the focus on reaction to Persily’s plan.
Attorneys Allison Riggs of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Edwin Speas of Raleigh voiced support for the maps on behalf of the challengers – 31 voters who filed their case several years ago.
Phil Strach, the Raleigh-based attorney representing Republican lawmakers who led the redistricting in 2017, reiterated his argument that judges hired Persily prematurely. He argued that no evidence existed that lawmakers had used race as a predominant factor in the drawing of the lines. He argued, as lawmakers asserted, that race was not considered in the redrawing of districts in August. Republican lawmakers said their goal was to protect incumbent lawmakers and try to keep counties and voting precincts whole when possible.
“We all know in North Carolina that sometimes race correlates with party, political performance,” Strach said. “... There has been no evidence so far that what the state was doing was looking at race.”
Thomas Hofeller, the veteran mapmaker for the state and national Republican parties, drew both sets of maps – the 2011 plans that courts ruled included 28 unconstitutional gerrymanders, and the plans proposed to remedy those problems. He did not testify at the hearing Friday or at any last year about the criteria or mapmaking data he used.
“The burden is on the state to come to this court and indicate it has cured the racial gerrymanders,” Speas said. “What’s missing is Hofeller. Where’s Hofeller? The General Assembly said. ‘We’re not going to use race,’ but do we know what Hofeller did? No, we do not.”
‘This is the state of NC here’
The lawmakers called Douglas Johnson, a consultant from Glendale, Calif., “to testify about the extent to which race predominated over other traditional redistricting criteria in the special master’s proposed version of the challenged districts.”
Johnson said it had appeared to him that Persily had developed racial targets, but in response to questions from the judges and attorneys for the challengers, Johnson acknowledged that he had not studied the maps adopted by the lawmakers that the judges had asked him to review.
Johnson was hired by the lawmakers on Dec. 17 or 18, he said, and was being paid $250 an hour for nearly 30 hours of work up to the hearing.
Wynn questioned why lawmakers did not want to submit maps that Johnson had drawn to illustrate how Persily could have drawn districts in Guilford and Cumberland counties differently.
Strach has said in court documents and at previous hearings that judges should have issued a ruling before asking for help from an outside consultant and if there were problems given the lawmakers another chance to correct them.
Wynn reminded Strach that in other redistricting cases that judges have drawn the maps themselves.
“We’re trying to get helpful information,” Wynn said. “We’re not just in an adversarial situation. This is the state of North Carolina here and the voters.”
While the judges weigh the evidence from Friday and previous hearings, party leaders are trying to round up candidates to run in districts that remain nebulous.
Lining up candidates
Currently Republicans dominate the General Assembly with numbers that allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. They hold 35 of the 50 Senate seats and 75 of the 120 House seats.
A previous draft of Persily’s plan appears to make it easier for Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents in four House races and two Senate races. Persily redrew just a fraction of the state’s 170 legislative districts, mostly in urban counties that tend to favor Democrats. Most of the districts drawn in August favor Republicans, according to a News & Observer analysis.
Ending veto-proof majorities could put Republicans in a position of having to negotiate with Cooper and some Democrats on occasion.
To take back the General Assembly, Democrats would need to flip 16 House seats and 11 Senate seats in November.